Music in speech equals empathy in heart?

Jan 27, 2010

Some people are annoyed by upspeak: the habit of making a sentence sound like a question?

But actually, being able to change intonation in speech - as in upspeak - may be a sign of superior empathy?

A new study in the journal finds that people use the same to produce and understand intonation in speech.

Many studies suggest that people learn by imitating through so-called mirror neurons. This study shows for the first time that prosody - the music of speech - also works on a mirror-like system.

And it turns out that the higher a person scores on standard tests of empathy, the more activity they have in their prosody-producing areas of the brain.

So increased empathic ability is linked to the ability to perceive prosody as well as activity in these motor regions, said authors Lisa Aziz-Zadeh and Tong Sheng of USC, and Anahita Gheytanchi of the Pacific Graduate School of Psychology.

"Prosody is one of the main ways that we communicate with each other," Aziz-Zadeh said.

In some cases, humans can't do without it, as in the case of a stroke victim who garbles words but can express emotion.

Or when talking to a pet: "If you have a pet, they basically are understanding your prosody," Aziz-Zadeh said.

She and her colleagues imaged the brains of 20 volunteers as they heard and produced prosody through happy, sad and other intonations of the nonsensical phrase "da da da da da."

The same part of the lit up when the volunteers heard the phrase as when they repeated it. It is called Broca's Area and sits about two inches above and forward of each ear.

The volunteers with the most activity in Broca's Area tended to score high on empathy measures. They also used prosody more frequently in daily speech.

It is not clear whether empathy brings about prosodic activity or whether frequent use of prosody can somehow help to develop - or whether there is no cause and effect relationship either way.

Explore further: Study links enzyme to autistic behaviors

More information: The study is available at dx.plos.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0008759

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Facial expressions say more than 1,000 words

Oct 15, 2008

People talk to exchange information. Yet understanding another person involves far more than just the content of the message. Only with the correct intonation and facial expression does the message acquire meaning. People ...

Linguist uses Internet to study how we say things

Jan 04, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- Mats Rooth, a Cornell linguist, will use software to study distinctions of prosody (rhythm, stress and intonation) in language by hunting for word patterns on the Internet.

Language of music really is universal, study finds

Mar 19, 2009

Native African people who have never even listened to the radio before can nonetheless pick up on happy, sad, and fearful emotions in Western music, according to a new report published online on March 19th in Current Biology. The re ...

Recommended for you

Study links enzyme to autistic behaviors

12 hours ago

Fragile X syndrome (FXS) is a genetic disorder that causes obsessive-compulsive and repetitive behaviors, and other behaviors on the autistic spectrum, as well as cognitive deficits. It is the most common ...

A new cause of mental disease?

18 hours ago

Astrocytes, the cells that make the background of the brain and support neurons, might be behind mental disorders such as depression and schizophrenia, according to new research by a Portuguese team from ...

Molecular basis of age-related memory loss explained

Jul 22, 2014

From telephone numbers to foreign vocabulary, our brains hold a seemingly endless supply of information. However, as we are getting older, our ability to learn and remember new things declines. A team of ...

The neurochemistry of addiction

Jul 22, 2014

We've all heard the term "addictive personality," and many of us know individuals who are consistently more likely to take the extra drink or pill that puts them over the edge. But the specific balance of ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

YawningDog
not rated yet Jan 27, 2010
I dislike Upspeak. If you don't know what Upspeak is, go to Diffusionradio and listen to their Dec. 7, 2009 podcast, about 4 minutes in. (HTML tags not permitted)

The origin of Upspeak is the Valley-Girl-Speak fad of the late 60s/70s. It then infiltrated our media, then the educational system as females began bringing it with them into the classroom. As women entered institutions of higher learning in teaching positions in ever greater numbers, Upspeak increased and gained enough of a following that eventually some men jumped on the bandwagon. Girly men? I don't know but it would make a good topic for a dissertation.

Now the trend on science podcasts is to Upspeak while describing all things science as "really cool". The use of the word "cool" has become so pervasive that it's no longer cool to use the word cool. But an Upspeaker will never know that.

But what's the use complaining? Like the poor, the ignorant will always be with us.